The UAE’s unconventional COP

The lead up to what the United Arab Emirates (UAE) hopes will be a pivotal COP28 has been overshadowed by questions about whether the UAE, as a major oil-producing country, is sincerely interested in decarbonization. The debate over the UAE’s chairmanship (and in particular, the chairman himself) has been louder than talk of the topics on the table at this year’s COP. How is the UAE positioning itself to be a decarbonization leader, and are its ambitions to be a climate leader substantiated or merely symbolic? Joelle Thomas takes a closer look.

View of Dubai. Credits: Nino Verde | Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0.

The UAE is in the spotlight this year, and this time, the news is not about the world’s tallest building or latest man-made island. As the host of the upcoming COP28, the UAE has been making news headlines for its flagship energy export deals, its newly updated energy strategies, and of course, its COP28 preparations. This year is not the first time that a COP will be hosted in the Middle East, though the conference has recently been making its tour around the Middle East (hosted in Egypt last year). This is also not the first time that the COP is hosted in a major oil producing country (it was in Doha in 2012). Nevertheless, the lead up to what the UAE hopes will be a pivotal COP28 has been overshadowed by questions about whether the UAE, as a major oil-producing country, is sincerely interested in decarbonization. Furthermore, it has selected Sultan al Jaber –the CEO of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company (ADNOC) as Chairman. In light of the COP28, how is the UAE positioning itself to be a decarbonization leader, and can its ambitions to be a climate leader be substantiated or are they merely symbolic?

First, the UAE has announced a slew of new commitments to bolster its decarbonization agenda. The UAE had already pledged to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, but in its updated nationally determined contribution (NDC–released ahead of the COP) the UAE has upped it carbon reduction target from 30% to 40% by 2030.  How will they do it? The answer lies in its National Energy Strategy, which outlines building blocks of renewable energy and green hydrogen on their road to carbon neutrality. The new strategy aims to triple the contribution of renewable energy over the next seven years, to 14 GW of renewables in 2030, compared to 3.2 GW installed today. Of course, this threefold increase in ambition is also accompanied by an increase in investment to the tune of 40 – 54 billion USD.

How likely is the UAE to achieve these targets? If history is any indication, the UAE has already made tangible progress, particularly on renewables. It is home to one of the biggest solar parks in the world, with Mohammad bin Rashid solar park in Dubai – currently with a capacity of 2 GW and expected to reach 5 GW when completed in 2030. It also opened the region’s first nuclear power plant (recently launching the fourth and final reactor, bringing the plant up to 4.2 GW of capacity) – a ploy to be energy independent as much as a contribution to its energy transition. It’s new water policy also prioritizes a new, less energy and carbon intensive way to desalinate water, which today, comprises 30% of the UAE’s power usage.

Second, the Energy Strategy is accompanied by the much-anticipated Hydrogen Strategy, in which the UAE has pledged to become a “leading and reliable producer and supplier of low-carbon hydrogen by 2031” United Arab Emirates aims to produce 1.4 million tonnes of hydrogen annually by 2031 and expects the figure to increase tenfold to 15 million by 2050,” according to an energy minister.  Its hydrogen strategy is again supported by a track record – as the first shipment of hydrogen from the UAE to Germany (in the form of ammonia) was successfully completed in 2022—with more shipments expected.

Nevertheless, all of this preparation is also met by a great deal of skepticism. As mentioned, the COP is chaired by Jaber, CEO of ADNOC. The French MEP Manon Aubry said: “This is an absolute scandal. An oil and gas company has found its way to the core of the organisation in charge of coordinating the phasing out of oil and gas. It is like having a tobacco multinational overseeing the internal work of the World Health Organization.” Last spring, more than 130 leaders of the European Union and Members of the US Congress wrote a letter asking for Al Jaber to be ousted as head of the climate conference. Despite the UAE’s progress, the positioning of an oil and gas executive as climate chief is clearly creating bad press for the conference.

There are also pressing questions about the motivation behind the UAE’s hydrogen play. While hydrogen constitutes an important lever in its decarbonization pathway, it is an even bigger business opportunity. For the past several years, newspaper headlines have been touting that the GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) “could generate 100bn USD from hydrogen exports” or “the hydrogen priz for the UAE is vast.” More than a decarbonization lever, hydrogen also represents an opportunity for the UAE to remain an important player in the post-oil world.

There has also been skepticism over the UAE’s latest nationally determined contribution, in which the UAE has pledged to “phase down” fossil fuels. “Phase down” stands as a softer version of “phase out”, words used by Al Jaber to explain the UAE’s position on fossil fuels over the past few months, and words that have been met by criticism for their lack of urgency – indeed, phasing down could imply years of continuing production, yet at a slower pace. Romain Ioualalen, global policy lead at Oil Change International, said: “Recent history has shown that more renewable energy does not automatically translate into less fossil fuels. COP28 will only be a success if its presidency sets aside the interests of the oil and gas industry and facilitates a clear outcome on the need for a decline of all fossil fuel production and use, as well as a rapid phase-in of wind and solar. The only way we’ll build a new energy system that is both clean and fair is by actively phasing out the old.”

The debate over the UAE’s chairmanship (and in particular, the chairman himself) is creating more noise than the topics on the table at this year’s COP. However, despite the arguments for and against, the UAE – and Al Jaber in particular, are in a unique position to galvanize a community of oil and gas producing countries and companies. While the UAE, and ADNOC, could be doing more, the same could be said of even the most ambitious countries and companies. As the latest IPCC report tells us, an immediate and drastic reduction of emissions is required. For that, all players are needed on board. So far, the world has struggled to reel in the oil and gas industry in shaping a common post-oil future. COP28 will show us whether a different approach – one that puts the biggest emitters in the oil and gas sector in the spotlight – will yield a different outcome.


Joelle Thomas is an energy transition consultant based in Paris, France. She has spent the last ten years advising governments on topics at the intersection of energy and economic development across the United States, Middle East, Europe and Africa. Views expressed are her own.

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